Making Christmas Magic

by Randi Minetor
in Feature
The Ghost of Christmas Present flying in Silver Dollar City’s production of A Christmas Carol.
The Ghost of Christmas Present flying in Silver Dollar City’s production of A Christmas Carol.

A Christmas Carol special effects are within most theatres’ reach

A chain rattles, a disembodied voice moans, and carolers break into song—it’s about to be a snowy Christmas Eve in 1834 on stages across the country once again. Theatres from coast to coast are taking sets out of storage and pressing the creases out of costumes as they prepare to mount their annual production of A Christmas Carol

Everyone knows the story, and audience members come every year to see it performed again, ready to experience the redemption of a “grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner,” as three ghosts reveal to Scrooge how his life went horribly wrong. How, then, do the nation’s theatres bring new surprises to the classic Charles Dickens tale, keeping it fresh from one year to the next?

James Hansen of Flying by Foy says that one way regional theatres choose to make their productions more visually exciting is to incorporate the magic of theatrical flight. That’s why the holiday season is the busiest time of year for Foy’s flying directors, who take to the field, lending their unique skills to the creation of spectacular flying effects for The Nutcracker, Christmas pageants and, of course, regional productions of A Christmas Carol.

The McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, New Jersey is a long-time Foy client. “We’ve worked on the McCarter’s annual production of A Christmas Carol for many, many years,” he said. “This season, the show has been totally redesigned. It features all-new sets, new costumes and a wholly new flying sequence.” 

While other shows that involve actors in flight—The Wizard of Oz, Fiddler on the Roof and the Broadway musical version of Peter Pan, for example—have one established script performed by the vast majority of theatres, there are dozens of versions of A Christmas Carol. This makes it likely that each venue will have different needs. Some theatres want Scrooge to fly with the Ghosts of Christmas Past or Yet to Come, and some want Marley to enter Scrooge’s home through the air. Who flies and how many cast members are airborne varies from one production to the next. 

“The production at Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri, provides a different take on the story, for example,” said Hansen, referring to the theatre’s full musical comedy production. “And there are faith-based production companies that view the material as a metaphor on Christian values. This year there’s a version with a woman in the principal role. It’s a fantasy, so the story lends itself to broad interpretation—but it’s done so much that a theatre’s creative staff may decide to look at it from a different perspective and approach the production in an entirely new way.”

Whatever the theatre requires, the process is essentially the same: Foy’s flying directors work with the show’s director, choreographer, cast and crew to develop flying effects, using “whatever methods and equipment we believe are most suitable to your particular production,” according to information for Foy’s Christmas Carol package on the company’s website. “We strive to create flying sequences that are as breathtaking as those we’ve created for Broadway shows, operating within the limitations of your budget, resources and theatrical facilities.”

The standard package—if there can be such a thing for this show—includes two of Foy’s manual Track On Track or Ultra-Lift track systems, and up to five flying harnesses. It also includes the services of a flying director who supervises the installation of the equipment, makes certain that the harness properly fits the actors, instructs the cast and crew in the proper use of the equipment, and conducts rehearsals with everyone involved. In some cases, the flying director remains with the production throughout its run, supervising a flying staff and operating the lead line for Scrooge.

If this sounds like overkill, Foy experts are quick to point out that flying people requires a delicate balance of safety and aesthetic concerns. “It’s a specialty craft, and while it certainly employs standard rigging principles, the fact is that most theatrical rigging is used to suspend static loads—scenery, lighting instruments and soft goods. The process of flying performers involves dynamic loads—bodies in movement. In some instances, our flying directors are asked to perform an effect in such a way that may be hazardous to the performer, and their task is to create alternatives that are safe for the performer and thrilling for the audience. When these two elements are properly combined, then the effect can be truly magical.”

Because of this need for safety, the producing organization must ensure that the actors, operators and other crew involved in the flying sequences are available for all of the rehearsals with the flying director. 

Snow falls on the Cratchit family in the Guthrie Theater’s production of A Christmas Carol.
Snow falls on the Cratchit family in the Guthrie Theater’s production of A Christmas Carol.

White Christmas in London

 Nothing says Christmas like snow, even if your theatre is in a climate that never sees a flake. Making it snow onstage involves some technical wizardry that goes well beyond a change in the weather. Generally speaking, stage snow comes in two forms: wet and dry. Theatres differ in which they prefer to use, as each form has its own benefits and drawbacks.

At the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Minnesota, technical director Joshua Peklo inherited a large quantity of flaked plastic snow when he arrived at the theatre. The Guthrie’s current version of A Christmas Carol has appeared each December for nearly 10 years, he said, “I don’t know if anyone who made the decision to use dry snow is still here,” he said. “But they bought about a gross of it, and we haven’t had to restock.”

The mechanism the Guthrie uses for simulating snowfall involves a vertical drum that drops the snow onto a disk, which whirls the snow around to give it a natural effect. “It comes from a 360-degree direction, rather than straight down,” he said. “The stage is clean enough that when we sweep it up, we can get multiple uses.”

Other theatres may take the more traditional approach of installing a snow cradle (also known as a snow bag) over the stage. The cradle consists of a piece of muslin with small holes along its length. The cradle hangs over the stage from two adjacent battens, and a crew member fills it with paper or plastic snow at deck level and raises it into position. When it’s time for the snow cue, a rigging system operator jiggles one of the battens up and down by moving its line at the locking rail, and the snow comes through the holes, creating a basic snow effect. 

The issue with this, of course, is that the operator doesn’t have much control over the amount of snow that falls, or how evenly it does so. There’s a possibility that clumps will fall, or even a veritable avalanche if the jiggling accidentally turns into a jolt. Sweeping up confetti-style snow after each performance can be enough of an inconvenience that theatres reject the stuff altogether, especially if the snowfall scenes are full stage, requiring large-scale cleanup. 

Instead, many production managers opt for machines that create realistic-looking flakes from a water-based fluid that turns to foam. The flakes behave much like snow does in the air, whirling around in the slightest breeze and eventually finding its way to the ground, where it evaporates in seconds. 

Milwaukee Repertory Theatre has had particularly good luck with this foam snow. Milwaukee is mounting a brand new production of A Christmas Carol this year, but the theatre has presented the show for 41 years. “We use the super extra dry foam, a liquid solution that gets pumped through a CITC Little Blizzard XT/SP unit,” said Jared Clarkin, production manager. “We’ve got some snow effects that happen onstage mostly in street scenes.” 

The machine works just the way it should, except for one issue: It’s noisy. “We use the quiet unit, and it’s quieter than the standard unit—but it’s still a pretty loud effect,” he said. “We need to employ some sound effects and music to cover the sound.”

With the new production, Milwaukee is going to up its snow game with an effect that will surprise audiences. “We’re going to use the snow in the house above the audience,” Clarkin said. “So toward the end of the play on Christmas Day, we will have five machines above the audience that will blow snow over the orchestra section. We’ll have it set so the snow is evaporating as it hits the audience below.” (The crew has run a number of tests on various kinds of fabric to be sure the snow won’t stain anyone’s clothing.)

Clarkin offers this tip to new users of snow machines: “With the foam snow machines, you have to incorporate a fan to lift it and spread it out for better distribution. If you just let the machine run, it can produce big clumps of bubbles that fall under the machine. It’s a slippery slope, no pun intended, trying to get it to look just right.”